We’re marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billie Holiday this week.
For me, and probably for lots of other fans, it’s impossible to think of Billie without thinking of her musical collaborator, tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
The collaboration ran deep. They gave each other nicknames: “Prez”, as in “the President of the tenor saxophone”, was Billie’s for Lester, and Lester’s for Billie was the one we all know, “Lady Day”. Their recordings, largely from the late 1930s, evince a shared musical, emotional and spiritual sensibility. They lived hard lives. Billie sang and Lester played with, to my ear, immense restraint, so a listener feels their pain not so much in as beneath and all around their music. I wonder if each felt that any rise in emotional temperature would quickly reach the point of boiling, or exploding.
Lester is said to have coined the term “cool”. In fact, he had special ways of saying most of what he wanted to say, a kind of personal slang that probably left many wondering what he was talking about. Both Lester and Billie used music and speech to buffer and soften their harsh experience – of the world, and of themselves.
As is always the case, though, these buffers reveal as much as they conceal. The music they made together – restrained to the point of being enigmatic – affords us a glimpse of two extraordinarily fragile spirits which, for a short time, found refuge in each others’ company.
Rev. John M. Graham